People who want to know more about genetically modified ingredients in their food would be able to get it on some packages, but not others, under a plan the industry is pushing.
Large food companies worried they might be forced to add "genetically modified" to packaging are proposing voluntary labeling of those engineered foods, so the companies could decide whether to use them or not.
The effort is an attempt to head off state-by-state efforts to require mandatory labeling. Recent ballot initiatives in California and Washington state failed, but several state legislatures are considering labeling requirements, and opponents of engineered ingredients are aggressively pushing for new laws in several states.
The move comes as consumers demand to know more about what's in their food. There's very little science that says genetically engineered foods are unsafe. But opponents say there's too much unknown about seeds that are altered in labs to have certain traits, and that consumers have a right to know if they are eating them. The seeds are engineered for a variety of reasons, many of them to resist herbicides or insects.
Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the food industry's main trade group, said the decision on labels should rest with the Food and Drug Administration, which is set up to assess the safety of foods.
"It does not serve national food safety policy to leave these issues to political campaigns," she said.
The grocery manufacturers announced a partnership with 28 farm and food industry groups Thursday to push for the legislation. The groups include the National Corn Growers Association, the National Restaurant Association and the National Beverage Association, all industries that have seen pushback from consumers over modified ingredients.
The groups say mandatory labels would mislead consumers into thinking that engineered ingredients are unsafe.
The state laws could also create a complicated patchwork of labeling laws that would "increase, rather than reduce, consumer confusion," said Kraig Naasz of the American Frozen Food Institute, another member of the coalition.
The industries are lobbying members of Congress to introduce and pass a bill that would require FDA to create a voluntary label that would take precedence over any state laws. They are also pushing for FDA to do a safety review of new genetically engineered ingredients before they are sold in food. So far, FDA has not found safety issues with modified ingredients.
Theresa Eisenman, a spokeswoman for FDA, said food manufacturers are already allowed to label their foods as free of genetically modified ingredients. She said the agency "recognizes and appreciates" consumer interest in the issue.
"FDA has received citizen petitions regarding genetically engineered foods, including the labeling of such foods," she said. "The agency is currently considering those petitions and at this time has not made a decision, in whole or in part, regarding the petitions."
The companies are facing pressure from retailers as the conversation about modified ingredients has grown louder. Whole Foods announced last year that it plans to label GMO products in all its U.S. and Canadian stores within five years.
And some companies have decided to just remove the ingredients altogether, so no labels will be necessary. General Mills recently announced it would no longer use GMOs in its original Cheerios recipe.
It is unclear whether there is support for voluntary labels in Congress. Many lawmakers from farm states have defended the technology.
In May, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. that would have allowed states to require labeling of genetically modified foods.
Sanders' amendment to a wide-ranging farm bill was an attempt to clarify that states can require the labels, as several legislatures have moved toward putting such laws into place. Senators from farm states that use a lot of genetically modified crops strongly opposed the amendment, saying the issue should be left up to the federal government and that labels could raise costs for consumers.
The final farm bill, which Congress passed and sent to President Barack Obama this week, does not weigh in on genetically modified ingredients.
Opponents of the modified ingredients say the sentiment may change in Congress as more states wade into the labeling debate. Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington advocacy group that supports labeling, says he expects around 30 state legislatures to consider the issue this year.
Maine and Connecticut have already enacted labeling laws for engineered foods, but they won't go into effect until other states in the region follow suit. And Oregon may be the next state to consider a ballot measure on the issue.
Faber says momentum is building across the country for labeling, "not because consumers are concerned about the technology, but because consumers are demanding to know more and more about their food."